U.S. soybean farmers take on the challenge of meeting customers’ sustainability demands
When asked why sustainability matters to them, a majority of soybean farmers respond that it’s because they intend to pass their land on to their children so they can continue the family farming legacy. For most farmers, that legacy includes generations of environmental stewardship, years before sustainability became a buzzword.
Brock Hansen, a fifth-generation soybean and corn farmer from central Iowa, agrees. He says sustainability is about more than environmental impacts; it’s about the long-term economic benefits as well.
“I tell people all the time that my farmland is like my 401k,” says Hansen. “It’s meant to provide stability for life.
“Sustainability is continually improving the soil, and overall health of my crop to make things better for myself, and for my kids if they decide to farm one day.”
However, in today’s environment of criticism and suspicion of production agriculture, that stability is threatened more and more by customers and consumer groups looking for ways to protect the land and water. This is why sustainability truly matters – to not only improve the environment, but also to improve profitability.
The concept of sustainability is not new to agriculture. In fact, many practices that are considered sustainable – crop rotation, reduced tillage and water and nutrient management – have been used by farmers for years, if not decades. Even the use of modern GPS equipment contributes to sustainability, as it reduces inputs and adds efficiency.
Yet, soybean farmers must continue to strive to innovate and improve their sustainability practices to meet the demands of customers. As both domestic and international soy customers seek out the highest-quality product, they will be looking to U.S. soy to deliver on sustainability.
The customer is always right
Neoh Soon-Bin, director at the Soon Soon Group, an integrated grain, feed, oilseed and oil-processing company based in Malaysia, says consumers are driving the sustainability issue and food companies are listening.
“A lot of our customers ask about sustainability, and some, like Unilever, a major manufacturer of food and other consumer products, have told us that they want to source 100 percent of raw materials from a sustainable source by 2020,” Soon-Bin says. “So, that puts a lot of pressure on us to find sustainable soybeans. And we will do what a customer wants us to do.
“If a customer insists that they want a sustainable product, then we have to import sustainable soybeans.”
To help demonstrate the sustainability of these practices and differentiate U.S. soy from its competitors, the checkoff helped establish the U.S. Soybean Sustainability Assurance Protocol (SSAP), which take an aggregate approach to quantifying the conservation work of soybean farmers. International soy customers are already using the SSAP to certify the sustainability of U.S. soy to their customers.
Customers see the added value of U.S. soy sustainability – and for good reason. The Field to Market 2012 Environmental and Socioeconomic Indicators Report, including data from 1980-2011, found that U.S. soybeans improved on all measures of resource “efficiency,” with decreases in per-bushel land use (-35 percent), soil erosion (-66 percent), irrigation water applied (-42 percent), energy use (-48 percent) and greenhouse-gas emissions (-49 percent).
Domestic customers, such as Tyson Foods, one of the world’s largest processors and marketers of chicken, beef and pork, also see sustainability as an important part of their business.
Win-win sustainability solutions
A continuing sustainability challenge, at both the farm gate and in the marketplace, is that there is no one-size-fits-all sustainability solution. Success can look vastly different depending on a number of different factors, ranging from where a farm is located to what is being produced. The soy checkoff partners with various organizations to educate customers on facts like these as well as share U.S. soybean farmers’ outstanding sustainability track record.
The checkoff is a member of Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, an organization helping bridge the gap between farmers and customers to formulate solutions that benefit all.
“Rather than prescribing specific practices, Field to Market is interested in working with farmers to innovate in ways that will have the most meaningful benefit for the environment while maintaining productivity and profitability,” says Rod Snyder, Field to Market president.
The checkoff also studies local best management practices for water quality through a joint project with the National Corn Growers Association. The Agricultural Best Management Practice Database enables users to access research results of various BMPs in local areas. The database can be accessed here .
To help farmers improve their sustainability performance, the checkoff partnered with the Agronomy Society of America to launch a specialty certification in sustainability for certified crop advisors. The professional accreditation provides greater credibility when communicating with customers and is an important resource in the SSAP.
The dollars and sense of sustainability
With farmers feeling increased regulatory pressure, recent focus has been placed on the sustainable practices of utilizing cover crops and overall nutrient management. Not only have these practices led to improved soil health and water quality for many soybean farmers, but they have seen positive impacts on their profitability as well.
Hansen, a user of cover crops, says more often than not, treating the soil well can also be good for your checkbook.
“If I can improve the organic matter of my soil, it can hold and make available more nutrients,” he says. “That means I can apply less fertilizer. Lowering my inputs can mean less fuel burned, less equipment needed and less cost.”
And that’s just one example of ways soybean farmers are improving the environment while saving on input costs. A variety of practices, including crop rotation, reduced tillage and precision agriculture help farmers do more with less.
“Sustainability is what it’s all about,” says Savannah, Tennessee, soybean farmer Alex Forsbach. “It’s the thing that’s going to keep us in business down the road. As farmers, we are the ones making all the decisions on our farms, so we need to be held accountable for those decisions and for what we’re doing to preserve soil and water health.”
The time is now
When it comes to sustainability, one thing is for sure – complacency is not an option.
“Sustainability is no different than other challenges we’ve faced in agriculture,” says Arkansas soybean farmer and United Soybean Board director Derek Haigwood. “As an industry, we’ve always attacked challenges head on and continued to improve and innovate.
“It doesn’t mean that you have to try every single sustainability practice that is out there – just one small change can make a difference. Maybe this year you try cover crops on just one of your fields and, based on the results, determine your plan for the next season. Or, if cover crops aren’t for you, maybe take a look at water management on your farm. It doesn’t have to be an extremely large investment to make a big impact.”